Jean de Ruet is a former Belgian diplomat and served as the Permanent Representative of Belgium to the European Union, NATO and the United Nations. He was also Director General for Political Affairs at the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
2022 marks a fundamental change for Europe. Russia’s brutal aggression against Ukraine and the resurgence of traditional security dynamics have caused more change in the past year than in the past three decades combined; The foundations on which the post-Cold War balance was built have been shaken; And many nations now face profound changes, at the heart of security challenges.
This is not unexpected when the European Union and its institutions face such pivotal moments in history, but the rapidity with which major world events are unfolding means that the bloc must plan strategically for the long term. And while the war in Ukraine is undoubtedly the most worrisome threat in our immediate environment – for which the EU and its allies have come together in an unprecedented way – it is not the only systemic challenge looming on the horizon.
Something is going on beyond the borders of Europe.
The Indo-Pacific is an economic powerhouse of primary importance, home to nearly 60 percent of the world’s population, and the growing economic, demographic, and political weight of the region has made it an influential player in international relations, as well as a necessary one. Addressing global challenges.
The EU formalized its interest in the region through the EU Strategy for Indo-Pacific Cooperation in 2021, and the bloc is now seeking to maintain and strengthen strategic autonomy, its political influence, and defend democratic values. Built, it needs to be actively involved in the region. It needs to keep its friends in the Indo-Pacific region close with a truly compatible agenda, especially from a security perspective – and Japan is one of those allies.
Not only do the European Union and Japan have common interests in the Asia-Pacific region – at least when it comes to China – they also share fundamental values: democracy, human rights and a view of the international system based on common rules and brute force as a process.
Recently, China’s assertiveness, as well as North Korea’s more frequent provocations, have prompted Japan to place a new emphasis on maritime security, and Tokyo is upgrading its defense capabilities accordingly. The country’s latest National Security Strategy outlines a number of relevant initiatives aimed at strengthening defenses and ensuring security and openness in the Indo-Pacific by expanding military cooperation and increasing the resilience of its cyber infrastructure.
Japan is keen to engage with like-minded partners on this front, and the EU should take note. Japan’s diplomacy is closely aligned with the G7, and it is taking steps to strengthen its ties with NATO as well as deepen its direct ties with Ukraine and its European neighbors.
Japan’s interests also overlap significantly with those of China in Europe. Compared to other countries involved in the region, the EU and Japan see China as a worrisome competitor and a major trading partner – cooperation with which will be fundamental in addressing the challenges of our time, particularly climate change.
Managing relations with China will require maintaining the right balance between cooperation and conflict, dialogue and competition. It will require constant interaction and effort on both sides. Or, in the words of one senior diplomat posted to the EU, “Russia is like a storm, China is like climate change.” And he couldn’t be more right.
The recent visit to Beijing by European Council President Charles Michel and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is a clear indication of the EU’s intention to keep diplomatic doors open. And Japan, being geographically close and economically interconnected with the Middle Kingdom, faces many of the same challenges as the European Union, in addition to more direct security concerns.
For this reason, we are witnessing a growing appetite for closer cooperation with Japan on the part of EU institutions, suggesting that we are entering a golden age for EU-Japan relations.
To this end, in the space of just a few years, three major agreements have been signed: the historic Economic Partnership Agreement, the EU-Japan Strategic Partnership Agreement, and the Partnership on Sustainable Connectivity and Quality Infrastructure. Furthermore, reading through the joint declaration signed at the EU-Japan summit in May 2022, it is possible to appreciate how wide our common ground is.
This is especially so when it comes to security and the defense of the values we stand for, and that includes our strong condemnation of Russia’s brazen aggression, our support for Ukraine and Taiwan, our desire to ensure maritime security in the Indo-Pacific, our commitment to a free and open cyberspace, and opposition to North Korea’s nuclear missile tests. Last month, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida visited Europe to pursue closer defense ties, and a delegation from the European Parliament visited Tokyo to discuss cybersecurity.
But this close relationship with Japan is not limited to trade and security. It incorporates two of Europe’s most fundamental long-term priorities – digitalization and green transition.
Through the EU-Japan Green Alliance and the Japan-EU Digital Partnership, the two parties have stepped up their cooperation in these areas. And thanks to this united, common position, it will be possible to encourage and support the rest of the world to pursue a fair and rapid digitalization and green transition — especially during upcoming meetings of the international community like COP 28.
All these elements indicate that the coming years may represent a turning point for EU-Japan relations. It’s time to embrace a new, unprecedented intimacy.